Kibbutzim Accuse State Landlords of Strangling Chances for Revival

Harsh rules levied by the Israel Lands Administration are keeping kibbutzim from building more homes and finding new sources of income, the communal concerns charge.

Relations between the Kibbutz Movement and the Israel Lands Administration, not good to begin with, soured even further in the last decade and hit a low point in the last year. As their populations dwindle and age, and profit from agricultural endeavors shrinks, the kibbutzim have been trying to diversify their income sources, and they view the ILA as the biggest obstacle in their way.

The Justice Ministry is spearheading comprehensive land reform, through amendments to the planning and building laws, to transfer ownership of land from the state to the people. Yet kibbutzim charge that in respect to agricultural land, the ILA's hand has never been heavier.

Kibbutz Ein Harod Ihud Gil Eliahu
Gil Eliahu

With their populations aging and profit from agriculture declining, the kibbutzim have deteriorated, and they say the ILA is keeping them from rejuvenating themselves. At one kibbutz, a 75-year old is in charge of field crops. In some, retirees now form 50% of the population. As the kibbutzim failed and were privatized, many veterans found themselves without pensions or assets, and often unable to leave even their modest abode to their children as a shrunken inheritance. The kibbutzim realized they had to expand anew, attract new people and diversify their income sources - including to house newcomers in their old homes, and to build attractive new housing and other ventures on land zoned for agriculture.

The upshot has been endless wrangling in court as the kibbutzim fight decisions by ILA executives, who in the absence of clear legal guidelines, create policy facts on the ground.

Withheld permits

The kibbutzim say the rules are harsh. In the case of one southern kibbutz, the ILA forbade it to receive non-members to their geriatric nursing home, which the kibbutz needed for the home to reach the minimum number of beds to be eligible for Health Ministry funding. The ILA said commercial use of the land was prohibited.

The kibbutz suggested paying a fee for commercial use of the land, but the ILA refused, saying that the nursing home would cause the kibbutz to exceed the 60-dunam allotment allocated to each kibbutz for employment purposes.

The ILA also withheld building permits from a central Israel kibbutz that had rented small, old apartments to students, because they didn't have permission in advance and neglected to pay the appropriate fee. Kibbutzim Ramat Shofet and Einat stopped renting out rooms for the same reason.

Kibbutz Ein Harod Ihud Gil Eliahu
Gil Eliahu

Much the same happened to kibbutzim that operated swimming pools and sold subscriptions to non-members. The chocolates shop of a northern kibbutz caused the authority to withhold permits for building homes and cowsheds, until the shop was closed down.

In another case, the ILA made building permits for homes contingent on platting the land into divided lots and registering each one, a process that takes some five years.

Ron Roguin, a lawyer representing a number of kibbutzim in their discussions with the ILA, accuses the administration of making one service contingent on another, which is illegal.

"It's blocking construction of housing for kibbutz members, which is permissible under the long-term lease contract, on the claim that the kibbutzim are misusing land allocated for housing, public institutions and industry," he says.

Kibbutz Ein Harod Ihud Gil Eliahu
Gil Eliahu

A Jordan Valley kibbutz wanted to reach understandings with the ILA about rights to a piece of land, says Roguin: "Suddenly inspectors were sent to the kibbutz, following which a letter arrived saying the kibbutz was operating an unregulated restaurant and demanding immediate payment to the ILA. It's become a knee-jerk reaction at the ILA, to screw anybody who dares open their mouth."

Only 120 out of 270 kibbutzim and only one of 254 moshavim have long-term leases for more than 25 years. The rights of all the rest depend on contracts renewable every three to five years, despite an ILA resolution from 1965 that all agricultural settlements are entitled to long-term leases.

Oddly, many of the older kibbutzim and moshavim bought land before the ILA's establishment in 1960. Later, possession of that land was handed over to the Jewish National Fund and after that, to the state, based on patriotism and a failure to foresee that in the future, officials would feel the age of agricultural settlement was in danger and that every decision would be studied under a microscope by lawyers.

Officialdom has frowned on the kibbutzim's expansionist vision. Resolution 751 from 1996 ruled that to register homes on members' names in direct personal leases, first the kibbutzim would have to return the land to the state and the ILA would sign agreements with the members. Veteran members would have to pay 11% to 91% of the capitalized value of the land, and new ones, 91%. That meant the kibbutzim remained without compensation for forgoing housing land, and created a heavy financial burden for the kibbutzim (except for ones with all-but-worthless land, for instance on hostile borders ).

In 2002, the High Court of Justice voided three ILA resolutions dating from the early 1990s that allowed land zoned for farming to be rezoned for housing or employment. It ruled that the economic benefits conferred on the farmers were unreasonable and that the farmers had no right to glean from reclassified land.

War of the resolutions

In September the ILA published Resolution 979, allowing kibbutz members to capitalize lease fees at a rate of 3.75% (the rate applicable to city land for housing ) and to sell or lease their rights to the land. But in 2005 the attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, voided the resolution. Government officials suggested amendments to the resolution, dramatically increasing the capitalization rate to 33%.

Under the new accord, the ILA would reach new lease agreements with each veteran kibbutz member for a lot of 375 square meters, and charge capitalized lease fees of 33% of the value of the land. New members would also pay 33%.

Yet that arrangement also fell through. Cities sued, fearing competition for their industrial zones and the kibbutzim also sued, saying they were suffering from discrimination compared with urban lease rates. The kibbutzim calculated that paying lease fees equivalent to 33% of value of the land on which they lived anyway would cost them billions.

"Squatters have more rights than we do," says David Levenberg, business manager at Kibbutz Hulda.

From farmers to sharks

Many in the kibbutzim associate the ILA's hard-handed policy with Shula Ben-Zvi, manager of the body's agriculture division and sister of Mazuz. They feel the ILA has rebranded them from hard-working farming pioneers into greedy real estate sharks.

The inability to arrange possession of housing (at reasonable prices ) has prevented kibbutzim from bringing home prodigal children: They can't use the asset to back the mortgage.

Nor has the ILA made it easy for the kibbutzim to bring non-members into their expansion zones, by preventing the kibbutzim from levying a charge from newcomers on original infrastructure development, though the original members spent money on building roads, public buildings and utilities.

The kibbutzim claim the ILA also tends to underestimate the investment in expanding infrastructure to new neighborhoods.

The ILA also blocks kibbutzim from engaging in commercial activity in the common, non-agricultural area, though some argue it can't do that: the kibbutzim always knew they needed to do something beyond grow produce, and many built industrial plants in their common area.

A retired kibbutz member who works as a home cosmetician is also breaking the rules, says Barry Holtzman, chairman of Admati, an association formed to protect the rights of moshavim and kibbutzim to their land.

A kibbutz near Hadera bowed to the plea of the Education Ministry and took in children from broken homes, only to receive a letter that it was engaging in prohibited commercial activity, he says.